I often think back over my life to a particular year that that was so life-shattering and life-altering that I was cast into a pit of despair like nothing I’ve ever known. And later, that same year life provided me with some of the happiest and most joyous experiences I’ve ever known. Years, or even decades later, the very thought of that year reminds me again of the very worst that life can throw at you, but also the best that life has to offer.
That year for me was 1979. The first three months were a continuation of the deepening misery and depression that began the previous November when, through a confluence of events largely out of my control, my personal and work life collapsed within a period of a week. I basically lost everything I held dear, and in the ensuing weeks and months my panic and fear met in that dark tunnel of what I later learned was clinical or major depression, also known colloquially as the “the black dog” a term coined in he 18th century by Samuel Johnson and popularized by Winston Churchill to describe their bouts with major depression.
The great writer William Styron in his bk “Darkness Visible,” had this to say about depression, and I always tell people that no one has come as close as him to describing accurately this dreadful malady of body and soul:
In depression faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come- not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying- or from discomfort to relative comfort, or from boredom to activity- but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes. And this results in a striking experience- one which I have called, borrowing military terminology, the situation of the walking wounded…
It was 20 years until I was able to write about that frightening descent from which I thought at times I would never recover. But since then I’ve never shied away from talking or writing about it because it has been the experience around which I have thought most deeply about life, based on the lessons it scorched deep in my memory and outlook, and on the way I saw and related to people after that experience. I want to share my story now m, as I have in the past, to let others know that it is through the darkest tribulations that we can acquire the immense wisdom suffering imparts, and for me, a path to my first encounter with God and the nature of spiritual reality.
I had lost my job on a newspaper in a small town in South Carolina, and, I thought, my closest friends. I don’t think my family even recognized me, they were so shocked by what had befallen me.
In March, I moved back to New Orleans and lived at home for a couple of months spending a lot of time reading and walking. Memories of my childhood floodEd back to me. I was 28.
By late May I had summoned up enough confidence to move back to South Carolina and basically start over from scratch. But at least I still had my old friends.
I want to insert here something that I wrote in my journal 18 years ago which describes the new person who emerged from that “dark night of the soul” in the Spring of 1979, grateful to be free of the mental shackles that tightly bound me for months. Over time, in the middle of 1979, those shackles were released one by one. Here is how it happened, and all these years I do not think I could describe it any better:
Late March, 1979. The months-long nightmare, the images of the descent into the black pit are receding, farther and farther back into the darkness from whence they came. The familiar New Orleans streets with their canopies of live oaks, the cracked sidewalks, old and new houses, cinderblock and tidy brick Colonial, a comforting world of equilibrium embraces me as I take long walks on sunny afternoons, past buzzing, blooming ligustrum bushes filled with the sweet scents of childhood. Past azalea bushes in bloom and magnolias and lawn mowers cutting slightly less scented grass. On and on I walk, long walks, to take me to other places. I reach the high earthen levee which corrals the Mississippi River, high with spring flood waters now, higher than the land below that I have just walked on. I clamber to the top of this preposterous levee, maybe 30-feet high and a small mountain in a city that lies below sea level, and I survey the ships plowing through the swirling dark, spring-muddied eddies of that wide and deeply mysterious river spread out before me like an inland sea. I smell the fresh river air. I look down the bend where the large freighters have recently came up from the Gulf of Mexico and distant ports, and I long to be on one of those ships. I dream of distant lands. I sit in the grass and close my eyes and let the unending pain of the previous six months surge away down that same river, joining the flotsam and jetsam, the dirt and pollution and filth that drain away to the sea, there to disperse among the dark blue waters of the Gulf. Gone.
That summer I lived with my aunt and found a job. I felt a sense of such immense gratitude and liberation that everything seemed new and good and there for me to reach out and enjoy and appreciate. I spent hours listening to oldies music. I saw a movie, “Breaking Away” that had my spirits soaring. I wrote short stories. I started graduate school. I was packing as much as I could into every day. I was, in short, happy because for the first time I really understood what it meant to be happy. The leaves of hickory trees that Fall outside the windows of my new apartment had never seemed seemed so golden yellow in the afternoon sunlight. Life was beautiful.
I somehow have the letter I wrote to my parents dated August 4, 1979. Here is how I described the way I was feeling:
I can’t tell you how much it means to be happy, to enjoy people. Everywhere I go, whether to the bank, the bookstore, record shop, etc., I find the friendliest people and now talk with almost all of them. It’s amazing how people respond when your attitude is positive and communicative. Each person is so uniquely different. Talking to them can be such a special experience that makes your day that much better…
That was 41 years ago. I wish I could tell you that my story of 1979 ended happily ever after, but life is not quite like those old fairy tales. Fourteen years later I went through another period of depression that was longer lasting and in many ways just as unending and miserable as the earlier one, and which kept me in an unemployed state of limbo for more than a year. I emerged from that, too, and successfully started over and finally settled down in a job and place where I was destined to be.
Now with the pandemic, the country itself seems to be entering a collective state of depression as everyone’s lives have been altered irrevocably, and for so many profoundly with deaths and severe illnesses of loved ones, loss of jobs and equally devastating, loss of close contact with friends and family members.
It’s a very surreal and, when you really think about it, a terrifying time to be living through, unprecedented in all our lifetimes.
But we will get through it. I may feel numb at times, but recollections of my pre-pandemic life are intact, including not only the memories, but the hope and realization of a new life after I had endured the worst trials of my life. Hopefully, if we manage to stay safe and well during the spread of this disease, we’ll be the survivors who will tell this story of 2020 to the generations that come after us.
Last updated September 04, 2020